Thursday, 17 June 2004

Len Deighton: Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy (1976)

Edition: Book Club Associates, 1977
Review number: 1245

At the start of this novel, the main characters (Major Mann of the CIA and the narrator, a British agent) pick up a Soviet defector in the middle of the Sahara Desert. This is an unusual start for a spy novel, where it would be more common for the plot to work up to the retrieval of the defector. But here the point of the novel is the investigation of some leaks of US research to the Russians, and it is this which makes Professor Bekuv valuable, as he was one of the beneficiaries before becoming disenchanted with the system and receiving a punishment appointment as a scientific advisor in Mali.

The title is an acknowledgement that this style of spy story was becoming old fashioned (even though Deighton continued writing them for another twenty years); it is the riposte given by the narrator to Major Mann's observation that in a few years the sky will be full of spy satellites, with the implication that this will render the old style of espionage obsolete. Even a quarter of a century later, though, I have never read a thriller which has a satellite as a major character; today's fictional spies may make far more use of computers and electronic surveillance, but they are still human.

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy is not ashamed to be old fashioned - in fact it revels in it. It's exciting all the way, right up to the ending when the scene returns to the Sahara. Len Deighton's plots are usually quite complicated; Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy is a more straightforward thriller than most of his novels. Even so, it is excellently done, far better written than most of the genre. This is the Len Deighton to read if you are a fan of, say, Colin Forbes or Helen MacInnes, for those who think his other novels are too convoluted. To me, being someone who really enjoys working through the complexities, the novel is lacking something, entertaining though it is.

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